Tristram Hunt appointed director of London's V&A Museum


13 January 2017

This morning, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) announced that Labour politician Tristram Hunt is to quit his job as MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and take up the directorship of the museum. In direct contrast to the recent appointment of the eminently qualified Maria Balshaw as director of Tate, Hunt has no previous experience of running an institution akin to the V&A.

Outside of Westminster, however, Hunt has built up renown as a lecturer, broadcaster and writer of popular history books on Victorian urbanism, empire, and intellectual history. These are topics that resonate – for better and for worse – with the founding vision of the V&A, which was established in response to the success of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851. In his research profile at Queen Mary, University of London, where Hunt is senior lecturer in British History, he writes of his interest in the "aesthetic and architectural representation" of Victorian civic pride, and the "ideology of empire and its urban manifestation". As a patron of the British Ceramics Biennial, and MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central – the cradle of the British pottery tradition – he was also instrumental in gifting the Wedgwood collection to the V&A in 2014.

A surprisingly political appointment at first glance, then, but one anchored in a public and academic profile that inspires confidence in the new director's administration of the museum and its complex history. As a representative and communicator for the museum and its vision in the eventful year ahead (expansions are afoot in Stratford, Shenzhen, and Dundee), Hunt's background in broadcasting – documentaries and radio programmes for the BBC and Channel 4 include Elgar and Empire, The English Civil War, and Sir Isaac Newton – counts for valuable experience.

As political statements go, some may consider it a missed opportunity that the V&A trustees did not appoint an international candidate following Martin Roth's departure, which was allegedly prompted by disillusionment with the EU referendum result in June last year. Brexit must press on Hunt's conscience as well, even as he takes up his new post: Stoke-on-Trent Central, Hunt's constituency since 2010, recorded one of Britain's highest number of votes to leave the European Union in the referendum, in spite of Hunt having backed Remain. How Hunt will negotiate questions of national identity and internationalism, popular appeal and critical research, at the helm of the V&A is yet to be seen. That these themes will remain as crucial as they are contentious in the year ahead is beyond doubt.